Ivy League schools have long lured Chinese students to America, exchanging prestige for full-tuition payments. Now Christian colleges are increasingly angling for their own share.
Luckily the pool of potential students is growing—aided not only by China's booming churches, but also by widespread dissatisfaction with its schools.
Many Chinese parents are increasingly aware that a technical education alone won't ensure a prosperous future, said Brent Fulton, president of China Source. And as more Chinese enter the middle class, they gain the means to send their only child to an American liberal-arts school.
That's where some Christian colleges, including Oklahoma Christian University, Michigan's Cornerstone University, and Indiana's Huntington University, see their niche. They aim to follow the example of Alabama's Samford University and Texas's University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (UMHB). Both Baptist schools have sent admissions counselors to college expos in China in recent years and have accepted hundreds of students.
Small schools might not be able to compete with Harvard or Stanford in overall rankings or degree programs, said Rick Ostrander, provost at Cornerstone. But they do appeal to the growing number of Chinese students who desire Christian community (or at least a moral environment) along with an American education.
"Being able to speak the language of education that shapes the whole person . . . is increasingly going to resonate with [Chinese students]," Ostrander said. "But as a private, tuition-driven institution, there's a practical benefit for us as well in recruiting students who [don't have to be] heavily scholarshipped."
Christian schools are taking differing approaches to their marketing. Cornerstone is emphasizing how its required core classes foster creativity and critical thinking. Huntington highlights artistic degrees that aren't widely available in China, such as film and graphic design.
The best approach is to establish a recruiting office in mainland China, said Myron Youngman, president of the Kaifa Group, which consults with Christian ministries seeking to engage China. This shows parents a sense of staying power and presence. Thus far, only Ohio's Cedarville University has attempted this.
UMHB developed its strategy through existing Chinese staff members' relationships. Of the 257 students accepted since the school amped up its China efforts in 2011, 104 have enrolled.
Other colleges are in the early stages and admit they have significant marketing work to do.
In any case, Youngman said, colleges can't just hire an agent to translate existing promotional material and expect a stream of applicants. The most successful efforts will master the art of branding themselves well to Chinese culture. For example, many Chinese may not equate a Christian education with the academically rigorous one they desire.
"There is rarely an understanding of integration—the teaching of all subjects with the understanding that all truth is God's truth," Youngman said.
That's an evangelistic goal for Huntington as well as an educational one, said Jeff Berggren, senior vice president of enrollment management and marketing. Because his school does not require faith commitments from incoming students, he hopes that non-Christian Chinese students will apply and be exposed to Christianity.
At Cornerstone, where students are required to sign a statement of faith, Ostrander sees it differently.
"Our interest is more in providing education for the growing community of Chinese believers," he said. "For us, it's a matter of recognizing that the next Christendom . . . is in the global East and global South, and we want to do what we can to . . . be a player in the global growth of the church."
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